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Sunday 4 December 2011

Theodora by Stella Duffy

This is a book I read a little while ago and reviewed for the Virago Book Club. I've been lucky over the past year to be the beneficiary of several Virago first look titles, and I've enjoyed them all to varying degrees.  

Theodora is the story of the Byzantine Empress Theodora, tracking her story from childhood to becoming the Empress. I found this a very vibrant, passionate and colourful book. I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, but Duffy has really brought both Byzantium and its people, especially Theodora, to life. I think it’s a real strength of this novel, and its writer, that the characters are so real and so vibrant that you really do come to care about them. Theodora in particular is very well drawn. She’s not perfect, in fact her imperfections are frequently highlighted, but despite this she is a strong, believable character who, by the end of the book, you really want to succeed.

Not knowing really anything about Theodora prior to reading the book, I don’t know how historically accurate it is, and Duffy does point out that it is a fictionalised account albeit based on the loose information which is available about Theodora’s life before becoming Empress. Having read the book I’d really like to learn more about her which is, perhaps, the best sign of this novel’s success – it left me wanting more. One of the key themes running through the book is how Theodora is ‘shaped’ by others, but in being aware of this shaping she manages to retain a strong degree of control of herself and her destiny. Although Theodora has few choices in life, both as a woman and as an actress whose choices are further limited, she still embarks on a voyage of self discovery in which she is as much of a driving force as those who would seek to control her. And it really is a voyage of self discovery. Theodora, being aware of her own nature, seeks to become more than her humble beginnings, she is ambitious, strong, wilful and intelligent and she uses these characteristics not only to gain ‘power’ but to find happiness and freedom, and to help others. I also liked the way that despite Theodora’s passionate, impulsive nature, all the things that became important to her, her conversion to Christianity and her relationship with Justinian, came to her gradually. Almost by surprise. It created great depth of character, and a sense that those things gained became really a part of her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There’s something for everyone here: history, love, politics, religion. It’s a book which challenges your intelligence, makes you think about how you feel about those times, the challenges facing the people and how they relate to where we are today. But it is also beautiful. Like the fine silk Theodora learns to weave, this novel is beautiful and strong. A perfect combination.

Theodora receives a bountiful 9 Biis.      

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